gucci-sunglasses-stephanie-fierman.jpgA recent article made me think back to a post I wrote last summer titled “Stephanie Fierman Likes Plastic Gucci Sunglasses – And Is OK With It.” The post says that experts who say that not-rich consumers are essentially duped into buying luxury goods are missing a large swath of buyers who know exactly what they’re doing: that is, buying fun, knowing full well that they could buy functionality at a far lower price. Hence, Gucci vs. $10 plastic sunglasses I can buy on the street. Plastic is plastic. But that dopey logo represents an indulgence a reward – for which I am sometimes willing to pay full freight.street-vendor-stephanie-fierman.jpg

BusinessWeek outlines the efforts of Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist and author of the book Predictably Irrational, who has spent the past year trying to figure out the forces that drive people to cheat (paging Bernie Madoff…)

Ariely’s very very boiled down conclusion is that individuals who are not directly faced with evidence or reminders that what they are doing is wrong are more likely to plow ahead and conversely, those who are reminded are less likely to do so. He describes a couple of experiments he used to try to measure “deception’s slippery slope.”
* Subjects who knowingly wore faux designer sunglasses later cheated twice as often on an unrelated task than those wearing authentic goods – take the first step and it’s that much easier to take the second.
* Get an auto insurance applicant to sign his name on the top of the application rather than the bottom, and he will be more honest about his driving habits – put the consequences right in someone’s face and you’re likely to get “better” behavior.

Here’s a TED video of Ariely talking about why people think it’s ok to cheat:

This has extreme ramifications and potential opportunities for luxury goods manufacturers like LVMH who spend a lot of money and time drawing attention to the costs of counterfeit goods.

Part of the problem is the arguments these companies use. Does the average woman – out with her friends to have a little fun on a Saturday afternoon without a lot of money – have any sympathy when the luxury companies are described as the chief victims of counterfeit buying? I don’t think so.

But what if these manufactures took a different tack, promoting the fact that buying faux fuels organized crime and following it through with stories of what these same criminals did with the $30 I paid for a fake Chloe bag? It certainly wouldn’t be possible in all venues, but could some of these firms visit places like Canal Street in New York and engage directly with potential buyers about the consequences of buying fakes? I don’t think I’ve ever seen this happen. I’ve seen local TV and newspaper stories about how a luxury company has done a raid with local law enforcement… but never a company interacting directly with consumers at the street-level point of purchase.

If was looking at a table full of fake Tiffany merchandise and given proof of the spot that my money goes to fund terrorist groups, what would I do? Would I stand there and think of the two friends I lost on American Airlines Flight 11? I believe I would – and I think I’d walk away from the table, and tell my friends about the experience.

The Guccis and Tod’s and Burberrys of the world need to find a way to debunk the idea that buying fakes is a victimless crime, and they need to do it as close to the moment of impact – the moment I’m about to buy that fake Cartier watch as possible.

Pity the poor retailer.

stephanie-fierman-grocery-shopping.jpgVandalism.  Gobs of costly employees. Shoplifting. Huge shipping costs. Rent, utilities and facilities expenses. Oh yes, and sales stink.

So the last thing the modern proprietor needs is to be compared to a storeeee innnn spaceeee… But Brandweek did just that when it published  “Why Can’t Shopping Be More Like Online Shopping?” (or “Why Retailers Should Be Acting More Webby” online*) a full-page editorial lamenting why oh why “regular” stores can’t be more like online ones.  Why bricks and mortar establishments aren’t taking “advantage” of all the stuff that “online competitors have been perfecting” for years.

Hmm.  Stores are far from perfect (my grocery store was renovated recently, and now I can’t find a darn thing) but come on.

Let’s take the points raised in this article one by one and give a quick, incomplete-but-adequate response regarding the practicality/reasonableness of each:

* Product reviews.  Where would a retailer put product reviews in a store where everyone would see them?  Who would be responsible for keeping them current? Who would be responsible for mending/replacing them if they were damaged or defaced? How could a chain retailer ensure 100% compliance across its network?

* Bestsellers. Pretty much “ditto” to the above.stephanie-fierman-online-shopping.jpg

* Search.  This one’s just mean. Stores have been experimenting with kiosks for years with mixed results.  Brands that want to experiment with shelf displays typically need to send their own people in to do it (expensive, time-consuming). The writer refers to a test that Campbell’s tried years ago. It alphabetized its soups in-store.  Result? They sold less soup.  And store maps? Who can read one of those and where the heck is it?

* Affinity. Since 10 out of 10 shoppers who walk through the door are looking for different items and would be lost if some products where re-grouped with others just because someone thought it should be that way. And if we’re talking about posting suggestions near products, see above for Reviews and Bestsellers.

* Brevity. The writer wishes there was a “convenience aisle” for check-out.  There is (15 items or less please). But when a store’s busy, you’re going to wait behind a bunch of people.  When was the last time you had to wait behind a bunch of people while checking out online?

And with this last point, I tip my hand: the presence and need for multiple (indeed, masses of) human shoppers and workers to make a store location on dry land work is the reason that my local grocer will never be like FreshDirect.  It’s not just money and profits that keep live retailers from taking on characteristics of Web shopping, as the article hypothesizes.  Some things, for all intents and purposes, are simply not able to be done well in the real world.

But if we ask why online shopping isn’t more like regular shopping, the good reason is also human interaction: a person that helps you figure out whether that sweater is black or navy. A greeter at the door who says “Hello” and thanks you for coming. A saleswoman who knows just by looking at you what size will work, and will give you an opinion on an outfit if you ask. A butcher who will tell you which cut of meat to buy when two choices look exactly alike.  A person who will give you a smile (or more) on a crummy day.  Oh, and I can go out and be home in less than an hour with the stuff I need.

Are there cranky and/or incompetent salespeople in stores?  You bet.  And websites malfunction, are often inscrutable and crash once in awhile.  Nobody’s perfect (not even technology).

So there you have it:  in real life, it takes a village to sell merchandise that one or two people can sell online – and that’s always going to be messy/ier.  Life’s not always pretty.  Cut your favorite store some slack.  Use channels and experiences for what each is good for and don’t bother wondering why reading online (or on a Kindle) can’t be more like holding a real book or vice versa.  There’s room in the universe for both.

* Dear Brandweek: You gave the article I tore out of my subscription copy an entirely different title on your website, thereby making it easier for me to find in the physical world than the online one.  Go figure.

Yesterday’s New York Times book review of Ellen Ruppel Shell‘s Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture was, I thought, wonderful and terrifying at the same time. [If you cannot see a video about the book below, click HERE.]

The author’s well-researched hypothesis is that we are either ignorant of or – in many cases – simply choose to ignore the profoundly negative, corrosive effects of needing to have everything cheap, cheap, cheap.  The article’s primary example from the book is shrimp, which went from an expensive treat to something you can get at any cheesy seafood chain restaurant nearly any night of the week on the “all you can eat” menu: a phenom fueled by so much greed and artificial chemicals that what they should serve at our tables is the resulting “pollution and toxic waste,” with a side of the “ruinous debt, environmental degradation, horrifying human rights abuses and violence that left millions destitute” in Thailand and other countries.

Yummm.  Pass the garlic bread.

But do Americans care?  Lower food prices at Wal-Mart are impressive because, even if you never set foot in one of its stores, its mere presence drives down food prices in the surrounding area.  Hurray!  Forget about the fact Wal-Mart’s brand-name food items aren’t all that much cheaper, in fact, and how do you know that that chicken isn’t cheaper because it’s of lower quality?  What we do know is, well, all the things we know about how Wal-Mart has historically kept its prices down. 

These practices are why I do not shop at Wal-Mart.  But I’m in the minority.

And has this obsession American’s have with inexpensive goods damaged us in macro ways that are now coming home to roost?  When prices are too low, innovation is nearly impossible, reports a Harvard economist. 

Paging General Motors. Oh, and this moribund company is already “out of bankruptcy?!” Paging the U.S. government…

The only true major American innovation outside of Apple that’s gotten any real attention… has occurred on Wall Street.  And we all know how well that’s going for millions of people.

So I’m worried.  There are a lot of executives who have generated a lot of shareholder value by sticking the low-price needle into our arms… and consumers like it.  Now we’re in a recession, which is likely to compound the effect: many now have no alternative but to shop for the least expensive goods – and others use it as a sadly understandable reason to reverse course and cut back.  People are worried, and conserving:  I’ve seen several studies where people say they’re cutting back on “values” purchases, such as “green” and organic goods for example.

Where does it end?  What do we care about the most?  The U.S. is consistently on the wrong side of global lists of developed countries ranked for homelessnessobesity, high school graduation, health care quality… and we’re the biggest polluter in the world.   

There’s a lot of chest-beating on television about the national debt.  “We’re saddling our grandchildren with crippling debt! Gahhh!”  What about what we’re doing right now – what we care about today? 

Sprint launched two new ad campaigns this past week, and brought its old ads – featuring CEO Dan Hesse – to an end.

Thank goodness. Those look-how-thoughtful-I-am-in-black-and-white ads – with the single camera shots bobbing in front of Hesse as he walked along – were making me seasick.

Wireless Week thinks Sprint pulled Hesse because the company was worried folks might react badly to the CEO making $14.2 million in 2008.  Perhaps it is a bit of a curiosity, given that Sprint continues to receive dismal customer service ratings and its revenues are falling… but I digress.

So – the new work. The new work is beautiful to watch. The production values are excellent. The problem is that it doesn’t sell Sprint all that well.

The first ad in the “The Now Network” campaign, “What’s Happening Now,” successfully illustrates how much data traffic is running right now. Right this second! This minute! So much is happening! A voice-over drills through statistics, read over crisp animations: “1 million e-mails are en route. 7% of them contain the words ‘miracle banana diet.” “2 million people are sending a text message during a business meeting. Most popular subject? Diapers.” 6 million people are researching restaurants in taxis and 29 of them just left their phone in that same cab.”

A lot of digerati are getting a particular kick out of the references to Twitter: “233,000 people just Twittered on Twitter. 26% of you viewing this have no idea what that means.” Tee-hee (or is that Twee-hee?)!

The ad rolls along at a crazy pace, and you’re working your brain just to keep up with all the fun facts. Whooo, I am truly amazed!

So amazed, in fact, that the brand behind the ad is almost beside the point. Even when the commercial gets down to business at the end, it waits far too long to show the Sprint name and logo. And 3G or 4G, Tier 1 huh? It’s all almost an afterthought.  Take a look for yourself HERE:

This beautiful ad will generate buzz on the Web because of all the fun cocktail party (ad:tech?) stats. That will help, but I wish Sprint’s agency, Goodby Silverstein, would adjust the ad itself to make sure that the brand message gets through. The second ad in the campaign, “Anthem,” displays the same beauty and cleverness… and suffers from the same ailment, as does the enticing website that accompanies the campaign.

The second effort, “Why Throw Your Money Away?” addresses the brand benefits in a creative manner that feels fresh, but the value message is well-worn. One of the spots, “Leafblower,” shows a father blowing lots of money away with a leaf blower while his family tries to grab it all back; viewers are informed that they can save $360 a year over comparable AT&T and Verizon plans.

At least the brand is front and center.

A few minor adjustments could potentially move both the television ads and the website(s) a whole lot closer to what every client (and consumer) hopes for:  work that makes an impression on its own creative merits while it forges a meaningful connection to the brand.

Have you ever had anything in your life that you really liked – loved, even – and so when it went bad you raged, you beat your fists, you cried out in angst?!?

Then at some point, finally, you had to accept that whatever was to be, would be. As with the 7 stages of mourning, you had no choice but to find acceptance?

Well that it what I am trying to do, as a coffee-drinker and long-time sales and marketing executive, with respect to:

stephanie-fierman-schultz-starbucks1.jpgSTARBUCKS.

Yes, Starbucks. I give up. I do. Seriously. I started writing about Starbuck’s travails on a whole other blog, for cryin’ out loud, and things have only deteriorated.

Yes yes, I can hear you counter with a reminder that I like the Pike Place and the oatmeal, or that maybe the $4 breakfast combo isn’t too bad. Neither could balance a series of seemingly endless missteps that I did not think could get any worse. Then Howard Schultz rode back into town on his “You ‘executives’ need help; I’m back to bring this place back to its roots” horse and the place went entirely over the edge.

Seriously – I am like this because I love Starbucks coffee.

The problem with Schultz’s naked arrogance is that the world around this company has changed forever. The “roots” from which this company originally drew sustenance are long gone. We can all see that the company over-extended itself with respect to both its geographic footprint and prices… but where is the leadership?? Schultz has been back in that seat for nearly 2 years.

Just as I can’t blame Obama for AIG’s 2008 bonuses, I’m not going to pin firings and store closings on Schultz. He had to clean up a mess that he found upon his return. But beyond that… he spent part of his comeback interview in last July’s Portfolio magazine lavishing praise on a “magical” blended drink from Italy that was “going to be the next Frappuccino.”

Meanwhile, I can’t get a cup of coffee in under 15 minutes in the morning and have to wait for the milk to be refilled.

Since the Portfolio interview last summer, the company’s made a number of “puzzling” moves, including:stephanie-fierman-costco-starbucks.jpg
– launching the new Vivanno (starting at $2.79)
– reversing its decision to kill the breakfast sandwiches that were difficult for staff and smelly for customers
– maintaining prices despite the worst recession in living memory
laying off staff with no accompanying attempts to address the stores’ painfully long lines
– creating a new rewards program that was minimally rewarding (Costco had a better deal)
– promising to eliminate the music program that remains in full swing in New York (where the music rack is often neater and more stocked than the condiments counter)
– announcing a new instant coffee

Earlier this week, I cut to the middle of a WSJ article about Starbucks in which I spotted a quote from Schultz: “The issue at hand… is the cost of losing your core customer. It’s very hard to get them back.” I saw a spark of hope – at last, maybe the chain was going back the basics. Was it possible??

Nope.  Instead, the article says that Frappuccinos will come off the menu boards altogether, only to be hand-sold by a salesperson in what will undoubtedly be a lengthier, more harried transaction.  And in a world headed toward greater transparency, where restaurants are being forced to post calorie counts on their menu boards, Starbucks is headed in the other direction with a plan to remove prices (prices!) from their menu boards.  If you want to know what your order actually costs, a staff member will have to stock and point you to a new paper menu somewhere on the jammed counter next to the CDs. 

Ironically, Schultz’s response to all this is to start running a new ad campaign that counters the “myth” (his word) that Starbucks coffee is too expensive.  Unfortunately, nothing reinforces an existing impression that your products are probably too expensive than you deciding to hide your prices from me.

But, hey: new, “more sophisticated” test stores will have wood decor and a big wood table.

Saving core customers, making a store feel “more like a coffeehouse” – these are worthy ideas rooted in the company’s past that should remain. The thing is, a brand must sometimes re-envision its execution of such fundamental values based on the contemporary circumstances surrounding it.  Let’s say Ford had “Get a customer safely from here to there” as one of its original tenets.  Back then, that might have involved horses and buggy whips.  Today? Same concept, updated execution.

Starbucks is unquestionably struggling to see its external circumstances in a clear and honest light.  If it did, it would understand that it has so weakened its own brand that it must re-earn its customers’ trust by truly going back to square one: a good cup of coffee, at a decent price, delivered in a timely fashion. Hold the wood table. Period. The company must remind us that it is first capable of delivering on this primal promise before it can have our psychic “permission” to explore any of these pet projects (e.g. fruit drinks made from powder).

Until then, all these Vivanno-like moves will not only deepen the company’s failure, they’ll also remind us every day that the company cares more about itself than it does about its customers.

As for the 7 stages of mourning, I am trying to get my head around the possibility of reaching the final stage – Acceptance – while standing in a Dunkin Donuts, holding a latte.

snuggie-stephanie-fierman.jpgI first noticed the Snuggie on television in December.  I first voiced my aversion to the Snuggie soon after.

Since then, several people who know I have blogs have asked me why I haven’t written a post about the marketing phenom that is the Snuggie.  The question is usually asked in a mocking tone, accompanied by a broad smile.  I believe these people are disturbed and that they do not care about me or anything that is good and right with the world.

But there is only one way to silence the masses.  Here now is the only public comment I shall ever utter regarding the dreaded Snuggie.  So you might want to lean in.

What’s a snuggie?  It’s this weird, shapeless fleece thing that looks like a big bathrobe put on backwards.  Is it a blanket?  Is it fashion?  Perhaps a fanklet?  I think not.  It comes in royal blue, baby puke green and a red that, in the TV commercial, makes the senior citizen wearing it look like the Pope.  I mean, this thing is fugly.

The commercial shows people wearing it inside while reading, eating, talking on the phone… and that was bad enough.  Now a New York Times Styles (!) reporter has taken the thing out for a spin – ice skating, riding the subway and going to a bar in Brooklyn.  The reporter says that he received a positive reception from most people.  I believe that is because we have all been taught to smile and be nice to crazy people in public.  A number of readers commented on his story:  click here and find a comment dated 3-2-09 from  “Hotpants Malone” that’s my all-time favorite.

Worse yet, the thing is so goofy that it is now “invading American bars,” as it has become fashionable for people to wear their Snuggies on pub crawls!  This could actually make sense, given that a crawl is a group of people, all stone-cold drunk, who could use the fleece as a cushion when they fall off the curb.

What is semi-interesting is that nary a Snuggie story has mentioned the product’s manufacturer, Allstar Marketing Group, who is running $10 million worth of DRTV for the product.  But hey: maybe Allstar thought it needed a fast start out of the gate, given that the “slanket” was in the gross-reverse-bathrobe category first… and pulled in $4 million in 2008 alone. 

pet-rock-stephanie-fierman.jpgAnd I do believe the Snuggie may be the pet rock of this generation, and that little piece of genius made its creator the equivalent of $56 million in today’s dollars in less than one year.

So who’s fleecing whom?? Get it?  “Fleecing?” Whooeee!  I’m hilarious!

Now do not ever mention the product which shall remain (Snuggie!) nameless to me again, and I’m sure we’ll all get along just fine.

P.S. I now use a photo of Bill Maher wearing a Snuggie on his TV show as my cell phone wallpaper.  Does that mean I have fallen under the Snuggie spell?  Sue me.

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For more of my writing, please check out my second blog,
Stephanie Fierman – Marketing Observations Grown DailyThank you!

The concept of fulfilling the wishes of poor children who write to Santa Claus is a century-old initiative first started by postal workers who were moved by such letters. In the 1940s, the post office began making such letters available to the public, and eventually “Operation Santa” was born.

New York was the first, but programs exist in NJ, Washington, Dallas and other cities. New York alone gets around 500,000 letters each year.

One year, my mom and I decided to participate. We made the trek to the 33rd Street Farley Post Office on the West Side, and sat on the floor reading letters. Some were goofy, with kids asking for cars and video games. Some made us cry, with children asking for a warm coat for a sibling, or shoes, or a job for a parent. You take as many letters as you can, purchase goods and then mail them to the family on your own.

This week, the program was suspended when a registered sex offender was spotted taking one of the letters. Apparently the guy meant no harm, but – when the program came back days later – it was materially changed.sad_tree.jpg

From now on, personal information on all the letters will be masked and you will have to return to the post office and give your package to a post office employee, who will then address and send your gift to the child whose letter you chose.

I predict that this will suppress participation, as some of the warmth of the process is drained away, and it’s going to put a horrendous level of stress and responsibility on the Post Office at the busiest time of year. Philadelphia mysteriously ended its program yesterday, saying its decision to halt the initiative 4 days earlier than planned had nothing to do with the breach. Unless they ran out of needy families, I doubt that.

As I said, folks, I got nothin’ on this one. No pithy observations. This is just bad bad bad at a time when the poor need more help than ever. I’m really sad about this.

Give to a foodbank, or go to a homeless shelter and offer gifts for children. Donate supplies to schools that cannot afford them. Resolve in 2009 to work with NY Cares or other organization to “adopt” a child in a school in need. Children do not deserve to suffer at this or any other time of year.

Operation Santa

As we all gear up for a lack of holiday shopping, here’s the latest from Tom Fishburne’s ingenious Brand Camp series offering a not-often-heard POV…

tom_fishburne-shopping-carts-stephanie-fierman.jpg

Tom Fishburne  

In August, I wrote a post titled “Stephanie Fierman On Beer And Blahniks.” (or, Why Do Businesses Not Understand Women, Part 1).  The upshot of the post is that Guinness planned to launch a beer “for women” that was essentially a watered-down version of their existing product.   The head of marketing at Guinness said that he wanted women to love this new watery beer as much as they love high heels.

I felt sorry for him.  Sort of.  But no one else seemed to.

I added the post to Blogher, where it received praise from one of the site’s founders, Lisa Stone (thank you, Lisa!) and this from Liz Rizzo (aka Beer Lover): “I love beer WAY WAY WAY WAY WAY more than I love shoes.  And watered down Guinness?  For my sanity, I’m going to pretend that I never ever ever read those words.  They hurt me.” 

It’s frustrating.  There appears to be two prevailing views of women in most marketing efforts: (1) the good-time girl who weighs 90 pounds and lives only at night, goes out with lots of friends in great clothes, does not appear to have a job and loves your car/bodyspray/lipstick/ deodorant/liquor (Guinness), and (2) the mom (Best Buy).

But back to Best Buy in a minute.  First, an anecdote.

I was on a plane last night and watched Baby Mama.  Loved it.  Silly, and a bit like one SNL skit after another, but 98% fun overall.  It’s the story of an attractive, totally put-together non-spinster woman, played by Tina Fey, who has a nice life and great career.  She’d be happy to be in a relationship but is ok being alone at the moment.  She does, however, understand that her eggs can’t wait so she wants a baby.  Now.

Flash forward to Fey, her sister and their mother (played brilliantly by Two And A Half Men’s Holland Taylor) having dinner while discussing Fey’s intention to adopt or otherwise secure a baby.   While her sister is going along, Holland Taylor despairs, “not everyone is so supportive of your ‘alternative lifestyle.'” 

To which Fey responds: “Mother, being single is not an ‘alternative lifestyle.”

Mother:  “It is when you are 37 years old!”

Holy mackerel.  How and when did being fine and single become AN ALTERNATIVE LIFESTYLE??

So back to Best Buy.  Best Buy has gone for Door #2 as described above while exclaiming that they have created new stores “with women in mind.”  “Gone are the chain’s typical warehouse-like blue interiors… replaced instead by wood paneling.” A store for women apparently also needs family-friendly restrooms and race car-shaped shopping carts – because the only way a woman would ever venture into a Best Buy (sans male decision-maker) would be with her male children in tow?   If you click on the photo in this post, you will see shots of the interior of one of these stores. Note the cozy throw pillows and kitchen set-up.

I store things in my oven.

Ginger Sorvari Bucklin, Best Buy’s director of Winning With Women, explains that the chain has created these stores based on its appreciation of the fact that 45% of all electronics purchases are made by women.  The chain is paying attention.  They are spending the time. The new stores were more expensive to build than their standard model.  So why such a horrible blind spot?  Where is the understanding that women are a diverse crowd?  Some of us are single, some are married.  Some love babies, some don’t.  Some live in the city.  Some even live in the suburbs… alone (the horror).

I decided to google Best Buy’s endeavor and saw some seemingly positive reviews.  A site with the impressive URL GlobalMarketer.com praised Best Buy as being “best in class” based on its new stores targeting women.  I opened the article.  It starts with “My husband and I (Strike 1) walked into a Best Buy store in Richfield, Minnesota (Strike 2) at 1pm on a Sunday afternoon (Strike 3).” You can’t make this stuff up.  I have nothing against husbands, Minnesota or Sundays on their own but, seriously: this vision would actually drive me away from such a store. Especially on a Sunday when my friends and I are in Tribeca nursing Bloody Marys. Next!

It’s not only silly and frustrating to be seen exclusively as either a party girl or a candidate for Jon and Kate Plus Eight… it’s offensive and disrespectful – to all women.  I do not believe that most companies deliberately disrespect women.  Best Buy does not consciously disrespect women.  It’s worse:  companies so smugly assume that they know what women are and what women want – or what they need women to be – they simply disregard the possibility of anything to the contrary.

How Best Buy traveled from learning that “female customers wanted more help seeing how products could work together and fit into their lives” all the way to diaper changing tables and race car shopping cards is beyond me.  Sadly, the result will be beyond Best Buy when these stores fail to reach their full potential.

Best Buy   Best Buy women  

Readers know that the Mojo is devoted to two special cartoonists whose work we like to share now and then.  On www.stephaniefiermanmarketingdaily.com, it’s David JonesAdland and here, it’s Tom Fishburne’s Brand Camp

Welcome to the recession…

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This One Time At Brand Camp    Tom Fishburne